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Graduation address – Professor Verity J Brown

Chancellor, Principal, esteemed colleagues, ladies and gentleman, and graduates:

I am greatly honoured to have been given this opportunity to have the last word before you leave. I am used to having a 50-minute slot in which to make a point, so when I was told that I should keep this addre

ss to under five minutes, I saw this as a somewhat daunting challenge. On the other hand, I have lectured early on Monday morning, with a slumbering audience, barely bothering to imitate wakefulness. The idea that you will all be awake even as I come to the summary and conclusion fills me with excitement. So, without further ado, let me get straight to the point… What is the point?

It is generally agreed that a graduation address should be inspiring, so that the new graduates are encouraged and uplifted by the words as they contemplate the changes ahead of them. Importantly, the address should provide some memorable words of wisdom, as it is the ‘summing up’ of the wisdom and inspiration from four years of lectures.

I turned to the internet, where there are quotations from graduation addresses, in search of inspiring words. I particularly liked the comments of Ellen DeGeneres, speaking at Tulane University’s Commencement. She advised the graduates to “Follow your passion, stay true to yourself, never follow someone else’s path unless you’re in the woods and you’re lost and you see a path, then by all means you should follow that.”

This is very good advice. Many academics have not had much experience wandering outside the University, so our advice might be, “Don’t go. It’s scary out there. It’s nice here”. Knowing that there could be a path for you to follow is a comfort. Nevertheless, we also know that, at times of transition, there often is no path. Maybe you are boldly going where no one has gone before. Therefore, I also have to make you feel optimistic about the idea of leaping into the unknown.

Let us reflect on your achievements. These represent your bungee cord or perhaps your parachute, depending on whether you studied Italian or something else.

You, graduates, have been with us for four years, over which time you have amassed credits to graduate, by taking modules that had the most interest for you. Meanwhile you, the supporters, could well discover that, as a result, you have also acquired another kind of credit and built up loans with a lot of interest. In fact, if one adds up the entirety of the financial investment tied up in the graduates to date – from birth – it is quite daunting. According to this year’s figures, an average of £222,000 is spent to get a child to their twenty-first birthday. And, leaving aside that the twenty-first birthday party is bound to be a blast, all those years in school and university were not simply to keep you occupied while the party was being planned. The great philosopher, Aristotle, said “an education is the best preparation for old age”… but even if many of you might indeed be looking forward to seeing a healthy return on your investment, Aristotle was not talking about money. It is well recognised that it takes something different to get to where you are today.

To the parents and supporters here today, I want to take this opportunity of emphasising just how much work has gone into these degrees. These graduates are the product of four years of relentless, demanding and challenging slog. Hours into the night and then up again early the next morning, such was our eagerness not to be left looking dim in front of the class. I can tell you, standing in front of the class is always intimidating. You know how they say policemen are getting younger? Well, every year when the students return, they are smarter, know more and the questions get harder… and we, the academics, have to go back to the library for more catch-up studying. For us, the rewards of the job are not financial, our rewards are right here: finally seeing them leave and bidding these bright things ‘farewell’.

But to return to the point: your education has been achieved at a price and is rightly valued by all of us gathered here in celebration of your achievement. We always believed in you and now we are pleased to share your pride as we release you, ready for the world of work.

Had she lived in our time, Jane Austen might have said, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a person newly in possession of a good education must be in want of a job.” Thinking about all the many different things you have learned – declensions and conjugations, accents and diacritics, theories, critiques and arguments – I suspect that some of the technical aspects now seem less relevant in the quest for a career-making job. The psychologist, BF Skinner said, “Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten”.  So what is ‘education’ if it is not facts? What useful things are you going away with?

I hope you are all familiar with the term ‘transferable skills’? Transferable skills are those things that you acquire in the course of your studies, which can then be transferred – applied in a useful way – wherever you go next. As you know, there are many activities that we explicitly say are imparting ‘transferable skills’. My colleagues and I are exhorted to be imaginative in devising new ways to impart as many of these as possible at every opportunity – having you give presentations; show that you can use PowerPoint; write a report; work in a team – and we do hope that these skills will be very handy in the “real world”. But even these were not the point of your time here.

If you ask an academic ‘what is the ultimate transferable skill?’ you are likely to get a wide range of answers, but I can assure you, knowing how to use PowerPoint will not be up there. They will say things like “knowing what you don’t know”; “knowing how to find things out”; personally, I am fond of Rudyard Kipling’s notion of “insatiable curiosity”. These are great lessons to take away. We want you to take your ‘bag of gold’ from here and turn it into something more – add value to the world by your activities.

But the wise words I want to finish with are Aldous Huxley’s. He said: “The whole object of education is to train the faculties of the young in such a manner as to give their possessors the best chance of being happy and useful in their generation”. Happy and useful: we certainly hope that we have improved your chance of this.

So, it is time to go now… Be useful. Be happy.

Professor Verity J Brown
School of Psychology & Neuroscience

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